Being a Pop Culture Junkie in 2020 Is Exhausting–and Unsustainable
We live in an overwhelming new era of constant content. Who could possibly keep up?
The “golden age” of TV and an abundance of multimedia streaming services have ushered in an overwhelming new era of constant content. Who could possibly keep up?
Have you seen that new Netflix docuseries? You know… the one about food?
How about “Lovecraft Country”?
You’re up to date on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” right?
Are you excited for the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X?
Have you heard Katy Perry’s new album? I hear it’s pretty good.
Mariah Carey is releasing a memoir! You have time in your schedule for that, right?
I know I don’t.
We might be confined to our homes more than ever, with Netflix, Spotify, Audible, Disney Plus, and a hundred other streaming platforms to keep us entertained—But it feels more like a burden than a blessing these days. Surely you know the struggle; just when you’ve finished your last binge, your last book, your last podcast, there’s something else that you just have to experience, according to your friends, family, and certified pop culture critics alike.
But does your to-do list ever really get any shorter?
It’s hard to keep up, and it’s nearly impossible not to feel overwhelmed or fatigued by it all, as if “overwhelmed” is just the new current state of pop culture. I hope you’re ready to be tired all the time, because we’re just getting warmed up.
As if our lives aren’t already an already overwhelming and endless stream of bad news about the world, our digital existences, predicated on a life-sustaining flow of doomscrolling, memes, and advertising from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, are also inundated with constant multimedia exposure. Not only are we expected to stay up to date on social media and IRL news, but we also have to keep up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives (not to mention the podcasts dedicated to each).
We’re more saturated with pop culture than ever before. And that’s assuming that you don’t have an actual life to deal with as well. Have kids? A parent to care for? A thriving social life? Good luck making progress on that queue of content that you’ll have time for approximately never. The struggle is real.
So let’s consider how we got here, for better or worse (and it’s definitely a fair share of both), as well as how we cope with this new normal moving forward.
How did we end up in this mess? That’s easy: We created an environment in which there are too many streaming platforms, it’s entirely too easy to access anything and everything you could possibly want, and we’re constantly bombarded from all angles by thoughts, opinions and hot takes on social media. The end result has been an erosion of the notion of a “mainstream” and a proliferation of too much content.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/1zjC6c5SJlA" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Too many streaming platforms
When Netflix debuted its online streaming platform in 2007, it felt like a brave new world—and justly so. YouTube might have democratized video content, but no one had yet found a way to take video streaming mainstream with licensed content that people actually wanted to watch.
This new model that Netflix pioneered would soon revolutionize, on a massive scale, how we consume any and all media in our always-online, digital-first society that careens at lightspeed toward a future that is even more digital and always-on.
Before long, we had Spotify, Audible, and other subscription-based systems designed to give us easy and unlimited access to resources that once were rare, coveted and valuable. Who needs to spend hours and countless dollars carefully curating a record collection when almost every album ever recorded is yours for the taking for $9.99 a month? We would be fools not to take advantage of the offer.
The catch? The corporations and conglomerates in charge of the media landscape would never sit back and let Netflix have the lion’s share of the streaming pie. Oh no no no.
Our pop culture overlords want in on the streaming game, so now we have Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Paramount+, Disney+, HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO Max, Peacock, Quibi, Twitch, YouTube Premium, YouTube TV, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, YouTube Music, Tidal… the list goes on. And on. And on.
Google was the first to truly revolutionize web searches, and ever since, our digital lives have more or less centered around Google’s ability to find whatever we want whenever we need it.
That power feels unending, and very nearly pedestrian these days… Except in this brave new world of streaming, where content is locked behind paywalls, distribution rights are constantly changing hands (usually because the interested parties are fighting. Again.), and finding that one thing you want feels damn-near impossible.
It’s absolutely possible to have too much of a good thing, and the current state of streaming makes that very clear. Even Hulu, once promoted as the unified streaming service to end them all, is full of broken promises and a nonsensical library of content.
Looking for all 12 seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”? Too bad; we hope you’re happy streaming the first six seasons, and the first six only. Good luck tracking down the rest without resorting to just buying each individual season on iTunes (or Vudu. Or Amazon Prime. Or… you get the picture).
There’s a handful of services trying to break down these barriers; Likewise and JustWatch aim to help you find the content you want by trying to let you know which paywall to break through, but they also want to help recommend other content for you to watch as well (as if that’s even necessary).
Some smart TV manufacturers have built cross-platform search features into their sets to help you cut through the noise as well, but the effectiveness of those features is hit or miss. Google even tries to help find streaming content for users, but that is also hit or miss because certain platforms (*cough*hulu*cough*) have cleverly built landing pages for shows that don’t exist on their platforms, tricking the search algorithm into thinking they host the content in question.
We’re merely pawns in a frustrating game of hide-and-seek where the only winner is whoever can trick us into forking over the most money.
Ease of access
Despite the difficulties in tracking down specific titles, all of that content, conveniently stored in the cloud for us, is still easier to access now than it ever has been. Never in the history of humanity have we had so much information readily available to us, just a few clicks or taps away. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this ease of access has devalued our content simply because we have easier access to it.
But I will say that it’s given us a shorter memory, and it’s given content a shorter shelf life. It’s ironic, in a way; by putting everything online for perpetuity, you would expect that a product’s shelf life is extended forever; but instead, we’ve been conditioned to consume a product, move onto the next, consume that one, and move onto the next in a viscious cycle that leaves no time to sit around and consider the impact of any of it.
Who could possibly remember the name of every “Survivor” contestant when the show’s 40 seasons (40!!) have featured a whopping 590 castaways? Watch, rinse, repeat, and purge from your memory.
Oh, but what about all of those past episodes? You could certainly shell out the monthly subscription cost for Paramount+ (previously CBS All Access) and re-watch every single previous episode of the reality show that redefined TV… but who has that kind of time? Think of all the podcasts sitting in your queue, untouched, while you take a 20-year stroll down memory lane.
Maybe this ease of access means it will be easier to spot the “cream of the crop” amongst all the noise; when, for instance, you’re listening to more music than you’ve ever listened to before, perhaps you’ll know when you’ve stumbled across something truly special, and you’ll help spread the word that spawns the next big hit.
Maybe you’ll be the next big tastemaker in culture with an eye for quality and the authority to make or break the next star.
Or maybe you won’t, and you’ll just end up exhausted from staying up too late because you needed to read ten years’ worth of previously released Batman comics so you’d have a comprehensive contextual sense of where the series is headed.
Social media overload
When you’re inundated in real-time by everyone’s media consumption habits, it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out or not keeping up. It’s a brand-new kind of FOMO specific to our always-on, always-bingeing society, in which we’re expected to fill our downtime with our eyes glued to our TVs playing the latest AAA video game or sitting on the bus with our earbuds in, listening to the hottest new pop culture podcast phenomenon.
It is so pervasive that we’ve shifted our habits around it, either avoiding social media during the peak hours of major releases and critical season finales, or muting keywords to preserve our own experience with the material.
But is it really possible to have an individual and personal experience with the material when you’re hit with everyone else’s experiences before you’ve even started yours? Every hot take, every shit take, and every single heartfelt reaction is amplified on the global stage that social media offers—time zones and scheduling conflicts be damned. Spoiler alert: Dumbledore dies at the end of the sixth movie.
Stressed out yet? You’re not alone; All of this social media noise… All it does is fuel the anxiety and FOMO that drives us to want to see/read/watch/hear everything as soon as possible when it’s released to the public. Who has the time to take their time?
Erosion of the mainstream
Thanks to the saturation of streaming platforms and constant noise from social media, there really isn’t much of a “mainstream” to speak of anymore. Back before anyone could produce their own content and throw it online for the whole world to enjoy, it took a lot of time, money and very specific skills to produce the movies, TV shows, books, music and radio programming that we consumed.
Those limitations restricted the rate at which our culture could produce and consume content, and it narrowed our focus to a smaller, more curated selection of media within the mainstream.
Now let’s be honest: This system was inherently problematic. White men were the gatekeepers of pop culture, dictating what we saw on screen or on paper, and the content we consumed was almost exclusively viewed through their lens. There’s no way around it; that model is unfair, unjust, and just plain gross.
We certainly don’t want to go back to that, but the simple fact remains that in the past, before the internet shook everything up, there was simply less content to keep up with (and certainly fewer Kardashians).
The great democratization of content creation has spawned content to fit nearly every viewpoint, every niche, and every age group. Want to watch romantic comedies about horny old people? Go for it. Looking for Christian emo music? You’re in luck.
There’s a niche for everything, and these niches have become their own kind of mainstream for the people who find solace within them. There’s a rich and empowering sense of community that comes from these niches, to be sure. But can there really be a concept of a widespread and collective “mainstream” when there’s so much content to fit every purpose imaginable? Or is the idea of a mainstream obsolete now?
Even Lil Nas X, with his meteoric rise to fame and record-breaking stint at the top of the Billboard charts feels like a bizarre fever dream at this point. Sure, he made it to the top, but did he make an impact and crack through to the “mainstream”? Do the millions of people who streamed his hit even remember his name? This feels different than the one-hit-wonders of days gone by; “Old Town Road” spent a longer stretch of time at the top of the Billboard charts than any other song in history, but Lil Nas X hasn’t yet managed to convert that flash in the pan into lasting stardom. The thing is… He doesn’t even really need to. The nature of streaming, and the ever-changing way in which Billboard calculates its charts, simply requires that enough people stream his one song enough times for it to rocket to the top. It doesn’t even take a majority of the country’s population to latch on; just one fervent and frenzied fanbase.
The notion of a mainstream in the realm of pop culture and entertainment requires some kind of shared experience, one that is common among the majority of people, like a Super Bowl broadcast watched by 114 million people. Those experiences are few and far between these days.
Sure, the tragedies and pains of 2020 have been a shared experience for all of us, but COVID-19 doesn’t really count as mainstream. With no collective cultural conscious to speak of, aside from a general agreement that “Tiger King” was… something we watched… how does one even define “mainstream” in 2020?
Where do we go from here?
Well, here’s the bad news: There’s no stopping this train. We will inevitably continue to be inundated and overwhelmed with entertainment choices. It may not be in our best interests, but it’s certainly in the best interests of the powers-that-be, who count on us signing up, signing in, and tuning in so that we don’t miss whatever must-see piece of content they produce next.
What that means is that we have to become better consumers. We have to learn to cope with this staggering and overwhelming wealth of options before us. We didn’t create this problem, but we can learn to function within it.
Spend your time and energy wisely.
Take care of yourself. It sounds simple, and maybe a little stupid, but it’s a deceptively radical idea in our culture. You get to decide where you invest your energy (and money). You don’t have to sign up for every single streaming service. I promise you’ll be OK, and your friend/cousin/aunt/old college roommate will surely share their login info with you if you ask nicely enough.
You also do not have to fill all of your downtime with content. Download the Headspace app and squeeze in a meditation or two and reorient yourself with being present in the here and now. Exhausting yourself trying to marathon another HBO series is not going to solve your depression or clear your skin—but actual self-care might.
Learn to filter out the hype.
Not all content is made the same, and it’s certainly not made for everyone. Seek out the voices of people you know and trust and listen to their opinions and recommendations. If you do, maybe you’ll be less likely to get sucked into another true crime podcast that you never really cared about in the first place. Follow that writer on Medium who really speaks to you and always steers you toward something new and fulfilling. Yes, content has been democratized, but so has critique of that content; there’s a critic to match your niche, and finding them is like discovering a goldmine. They will enrich your life by leading you to the content you actually want… BUT…
Make sure to break out of your bubble from time to time
If all you watch is a nonstop stream of CBS crime procedurals, well, then, congratulations on having an enviable level of intestinal fortitude. But also, a stale diet like that is bound to narrow your worldview, just as only watching the niche content you know and love will narrow your worldview. This is where old school models come in handy. Let go of control: Unplug your phone from your car stereo, open the TikTok app, or switch your TV back over to real live cable, and you’ll discover the beautiful, chaotic unpredictability of content you didn’t choose. You will, of course, be annoyed by some, if not most, of the content you see. You will probably also be bored on more than one occasion. That’s OK. Revel in the discomfort. I promise you that this is where the magic can happen when you’re feeling stuck in a streaming rut.
When we’re overwhelmed by power and choices and unlimited possibility, we have an opportunity to discover that there’s a defiant and chaotic power in letting go of control, of letting someone else decide what to watch/read/listen to, if only for a few minutes. And who knows, you might stumble across something that speaks to you, surprises you, or challenges you in a way you didn’t think was possible. Wouldn’t that be great?
Give each other a break
Go hug a fellow pop culture junkie; they’re probably feeling the strain of lagging behind the curve when it comes to the next big cultural phenomenon. They’re inundated with people insisting they watch this, listen to that—paired, of course, with all the various ways in which their life will be better if they just tuned in.
They’re overwhelmed. They’ll probably get around to watching “Fleabag” eventually, and they might or might not find the time to re-watch every season of “Drag Race” and “Untucked”… but right now they just need a break.
Take a breath, fellow pop culture junkies. You’re not Superwoman, and you can’t do it all. I don’t expect you to, and you shouldn’t expect you too, either. Take it easy, take your time, and take care of yourself.
Matt Sevits is recovering pop music addict who’s finding his way in the wide, wonderful world of music. Find more of his writing on Medium
I'm a recovering pop music addict who’s finding his way in the wide, wonderful world of music.